We all want to buy smart, but it’s not easy: with hundreds of labels out there and new ones joining the pack every day, how are we supposed to know whether to buy pastured or free-roaming eggs, grass-fed or antibiotic-free milk? HowGood may be the answer.
HowGood is a New York-based startup, launched by brothers Alexander and Arthur Gillett in 2007. Their goal: to help shoppers become better informed about which food brands are best, without forcing them to do all the heavy lifting.
“My brother and I are super aware of [food] issues and passionate about best practices,” explains Alexander. “And How Good came from that, from essentially realizing how hard it was to gather the data on the actual practices behind the products, and starting to question what would happen if we made that really, really easy for our customers.”
So they decided to call in the industry experts – more than 1,000 of them, to be exact. Alongside 350 data partners, they began analyzing every food item on our grocery store shelves, from every angle.
“Essentially what we’re looking at is 60-70 indicators, from the environmental to the social side of things,” explains Alexander. “And things are weighted differently both by category and by region.”
For example, the regional question of water usage in temperate upstate New York versus arid, drought-prone California would sway ratings differently, depending on where the product was made. Another example might be the impact of transporting a food versus the impact of growing it locally, but in a greenhouse.
“We're trying to create a sense of nuance within the system, where we're able to look at all of these factors and then simplify it,” he explains.
It sounds easier than it is. Often, several PhDs are united to discuss just one ingredient before HowGood can assign a rating.
Luckily, the rating system is comparatively simple, with just three options: good, better, or great. At launch, when HowGood had rated more than 100,000 products, only six percent got the coveted "great” rating.
“We just want to simplify it, to saying, ‘This company is going above and beyond, and doing more than anyone else in this space, and if you're buying form them, you are supporting best practices,” says Alexander.
While at first, HowGood provided this information via an app, the brothers soon noticed something about how most of us shop that changed their approach: even with the best of intentions, very few people have the time or inclination to compare several brands via an app.
“You rarely get to the grocery store and just think: I'm gonna meander around and take as much time as I want,” says Alexander. In fact, they found, the average consumer spends no more than 15 seconds making a choice in the aisle – and the average app takes 30 seconds to scan just one barcode, meaning that to compare five milks, an app has asked a consumer to spend over two minutes making a decision.
“You're asking them to do too much work,” says Alexander.
It was then that HowGood decided to begin working in cooperation with grocery stores, displaying the HowGood rating right next to the price tag.
“We were pleasantly surprised to learn that when you remove all the steps, and you put the information in front of them, you see a 31 percent boost in sales for those best-rated products,” says Alexander.
Today, HowGood has rated more than 200,000 products and is adding more every day – the goal is to reach 350,000 by the end of 2017. The ratings are currently available in 27 states, in stores large and small, the latest of which to join the movement are the Ahold’s Giant Food stores in the DC/Baltimore area. While the ratings have only launched in limited stores for now, all 169 stores may soon be participating, too.
But if your local store isn’t on HowGood’s radar yet, never fear. You can still access all of this important data via the app. And if you’re one of those shoppers who just can’t take the time to compare too many brands when you shop (trust us, you’re not alone), Alexander also has some tips for making the very best choices quickly and easily.
1. Smaller Producers Are Usually Best
When in doubt, choose smaller, local producers. Not too surprising, right? But the facts backs up our faith in local. When HowGood was rating products, all of the data pointed towards small institutions having best practices, as compared with larger brands.
2. If You Really Want to Make an Impact, Change Your Meat
We can’t always afford to buy the best possible ingredient in each category, so if you’re only going to make one change, more than fish, eggs, grains, or produce, Alexander recommends changing the way you buy red meat.
“This does not necessarily mean you have to stop eating red meat,” he explains. “Making a purchase of 100 percent grass fed organic local beef can go beyond making a less negative impact, and actually create a huge positive impact in the local environment and agricultural community.”
3. When In Doubt, Choose Organic
While some labels don’t mean much (like our favorite, “natural"), for Alexander, choosing the label that means the most is a no-brainer.
“There's no question which of those is the most impactful,” he says. “That would be organic.”
And it’s no wonder: after all, the USDA organic label encompasses other labels like antibiotic-free and GMO-free. For now, it’s the top standard on the market and pretty much always a sure thing.
As for the Gillett brothers, they’re going to keep on rating products, moving toward their objective of rating every product sold on the market: a lofty goal, but one they’re determined to meet.
“There's something like 30,000 new food products created every year in the U.S., so it's a big ask,” says Alexander. “But that's exactly what we want to do, and by the end of 2017, we hope to be over the 350,000 mark.”
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